Running with a Coach

Like most distance runners, I am at least mildly neurotic about my body.  We have to be, our body is what lets us perform our sport.  For instance, I won’t listen to any of your advice about the health of my body.  I won’t wear those high heels. I won’t sled down that hill. I won’t bend that way in yoga.  I won’t eat that bacon, it’s long run day. I will, however, do everything that my coach says to do.  Because I trust him completely with my body. 

Maybe you’ve never had the opportunity to run and train with a coach so I’m going to tell you why I think having a coach is fantastic.

1. It’s so “easy”

Right now, my marathon training with coach Cliff is focused on the Boston Marathon- my 3rd running of the most glorious marathon on earth (in my opinion).  I’m running 85 km+ per week- fitness that will carry well onto the 430km road to Banjul in The Gambia.  You may say there’s nothing “easy” about running 85km per week.  You’re right. The “how” to train is the “easy” part.  Cliff dictates my training plan, I trust him completely and I do exactly what he says.  Last year when I was training with coach Matt, same thing (Matt left Halifax for Antigonish & university).  I’m good at working hard on the roads and on the track.  Plus it’s something that I love.

Although sometimes this absolute trust does not feel like it works out so well.  I end up doing really challenging workouts that, without a coach, I would never force myself to do.  For example, 3 x 20 minute repeats at half marathon pace on a Tuesday evening.  On this particular evening I pointed out that this was 60 minutes of half-marathon pace running.  Like ⅔ of a half marathon.  Cliff says “Yes. And?”  Or my “favourite” (read least favourite) this cycle, a set of 400m intervals at 5km pace alternating with 400m at marathon pace totalling 5km in the middle of a 2 hour long run.  But Cliffs tells me to do it, I do it.

Cliff sometimes laments that “no ones listens to him!” But then he’ll look at me and say, “except for you.”  In previous marathon training cycles, my longest long run has always been 32km (20 miles) which takes about 3 hours to run in training.  This cycle, Cliff has capped my long runs at 2.5 hours.  I pointed out once that I would never reach 32km with a 2.5 hour long run.  He asked me if I thought there was something magic about 32km?  I didn’t have much of an answer other than “yes sir, I will run 2.5 hours.”  So I listen, I do it and this keeps training “easy.”

2. You work much harder than you would if you were training solo

Sometimes I don’t want to do what my coach says.  Especially the quality speed segments in every second week’s long run.  But I know that on Tuesday, he’ll ask me about my long run.  So I have to do it.  Sometimes when my workouts take me away from Cliff’s “headquarters” at SMU, I don’t want to hit the fast pace he’s requested for intervals.  But I know he’s going to ask me how they were when I return.  And he’ll be happy when I say I was on pace.  And then I’ll be happy too.  I want to please him in a way that I can only compare to the way a kid wants to please their first grade teacher when learning to write their name.  Sometimes a runner needs this external motivation for fuel.  Especially when the work is hard.

3  If your coach is good, it’s awesome

Certainly some of the runner-coach relationship depends on both of your personalities.  With both Matt and Cliff, I feel like I hit the jackpot.

Cliff knows pretty much everything there is to know about training. He’s like a walking library.  Although careful getting him started, he’ll talk for a long time!  He’s funny.  He’s motivating. He’s generous with his time and he cares a lot about his runners.  Well, upon consideration, he’s motivating and generous with his time because he cares so much about his runners.

A distance runner and her coach

Erin and Cliff after the Moose Run

One day my husband and I were driving down Robie Street and saw Cliff walking.  We honked the horn and I called out “Hi Cliff!”  He yells back, as my car continues to drive, “Hi Erin!” But then he continues, “Erin! How were your legs feeling after the track on Thursday! I hope they are ok!”  He may have yelled more but we had driven way.  Classic caring Cliff.

Cliff is also incredibly generous with his time.  Matt was the same.  Cliff is outside with his runners most nights of the week from 4pm to 7:30pm, all winter long, wearing boots, mitts and 4 pairs of pants.  Matt used to follow his runners on his bike.  In January.  In snow and ice.  Dressed in a snowsuit.

I have a Nova Scotia-Gambia Association board of directors meeting on the 1st Tuesday of every month, a night I usually train with Cliff.  On more than one occasion, he’s come out on Monday night, just to coach me alone.  I try to get him to tell me workout instructions and then go home but he won’t hear of it.  “The people who want to be here are here.  Let’s train” he says.

Cliff coaches the city’s fastest and best runners.  I am by no means in the ranks of fastest or best.  Yet, I feel like he treats me exactly the same as he treats his fastest runners. Both Cliff and Matt can make you feel like you are the most important athlete that they coach.  This is truly a hallwark of a superb coach.

Sometimes Cliff says really funny training things that I laugh about for an entire workout.  One night, we were running intervals at 10k pace and he says “Tell me your best 10k again.”  I say “42:00”  He says, “Well, gawd, we can’t be running that slow.”  For the rest of the night, I run at a faster 10k pace with a grin on my face.  Another night he instructed us to do 200m repeats and I ask him how fast.  He gives me a standard Cliff response, “just go nice and relaxed and easy.”  I return to the start line having run 200m in 45 seconds.  He says, “Ok, much, much faster please.”  I do the rest at 40 seconds with a laugh in my stride.

4.  Your coach’s belief in your running ability becomes your belief in your running ability.

Cliff, and prior to him Matt, knew I could race faster long before I believed that I could race faster.  A good coach monitors your splits, your weekly mileage, your progress, your fitness, the way your body is responding to stress and can pretty accurately predict your performance on race day.  Putting your training cycle, goal setting and faith in a coach that you trust 100% is liberating.

Even if you are incredibly fit, a lack of confidence and belief in your ability will almost always cost you a good performance in a race.  Last year before the Boston Marathon, Matt told me to race @ 4:43/km pace to run 3:19:xx.  The year before I ran 3:32:36.  This was a whopping 13 minutes faster.

Erin Poirier at the finish line of the 2010 Boston Marathon

Boston Marathon 2010 Happy 3:19 Finish

I did my last workout with Matt on a Wednesday, 5 days before Boston, and felt really confident.  Thursday through Saturday were nerve-wracking for me.  Several very caring people asked me what my Boston goal was and I said “3:19” and they said, “Wow, that’s way faster than last year, are you sure you can do it?”  I had myself in a state of anxiety, doubting my ability, until I talked to training partner Candice.  “Matt knows your fitness and your racing ability” she told me.  I remembered, yes, yes he does. I remembered that I believed in Matt’s coaching skill, I trusted him completely, and I believed that he would never set me up for failure.  So I chose to believe I could run 3:19, no matter what anyone else said.  And I did it.  I went out and ran a very well executed 3:19.

This year in April, when Cliff and I set my race goal, I will believe that he’s correct. He’s a knowledgeable coach, I trust him completely and I’ll go out and do it.  But this year, I won’t be disclosing my goal.  I have no doubt in Cliff and no doubt in myself.  But I need to protect myself from other people’s doubt.

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7 Responses to Running with a Coach

  1. Debby Hughes says:

    I need a coach like Cliff! Glad to hear you’re protecting yourself from doubters…no fun suckers allowed:)

  2. Dawn Hughes says:

    Erin, you have told me so much about Cliff and Matt when we have been out running and I totally enjoyed reading more about them. Whatever you and Cliff decide is you goal time I know you will make it. Awesome pair and no doubters allowed. 🙂

  3. I can’t agree with you more. I’ve had paid personal trainers and they make the world of difference and are worth every penny. I self-assigned my friend Jonathan Kirk to be my coach (whether he likes it or not)… I generally just pay him with baked goods or friendship… but when I need him to boose me up… it’s true… he makes me think I can do anything! He’s right, if I listen to his advice, I achieve my goals. He’s my confidence, eliminates my self-doubt and that little voice over my shoulder during my runs. Jon gave me some advice for when I hit the 20K mark of my first half marathon (Hypo Half in February) and as soon as my Garmin hit that distance, I remember what he told me and it helped me to finish. Coaches, mentors or just someone you respect in running can make such a difference in your own performance!

    • Erin Poirier says:

      Thanks for reading, Michelle! And for understanding 100%! Amazing that you’ve found a coach and friend that can help you be your best runner self. For me, a coach was the difference between being a 3:32 marathoner and a 3:19 marathoner 🙂

  4. No question, I’m lucky to have Jonathan Kirk as a friend (and also to get running advice from).

    Having a coach is an investment in yourself, completely worth it. I’m glad you’ve found coaches who help you reach your goals, it’s fabulous. Probably just as satisifying for them as it is for you.

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